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Year in Review: What we lost, and gained, in Minnesota media in 2020

A look at who and what we lost, what we gained, and what might be ahead for 2021.

We know: 2020 can’t end fast enough. For most if not all media entities in Minnesota, it’s been awful. The year ended with fewer newspapers, fewer employed journalists across all genres (print, digital and broadcast), and little hope for a quick reversal of this troubling trend when the pandemic finally eases.

But a few positives bobbed in this sea of negativity. As a forgettable 2020 comes to a close, let’s look back at who and what we lost, what we gained, and what might be ahead for 2021.

Community newspapers struggling

Small daily and community newspapers in Minnesota already were squeezed by declining advertising revenue when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Most advertising disappeared virtually overnight, with catastrophic results.

By May, the Bulletin of Woodbury and Cottage Grove (formerly the Washington County Bulletin), the Hastings Star Gazette, the Japser Journal and Eden Prairie News, among others, were out of business. By year’s end, so were City Pages and the Southwest Journal. Consolidations further reduced the number of news outlets statewide. 

City Pages cover introducing The Current radio station, March 2, 2005.
Even larger papers felt the pinch. The Fargo-Moorhead Forum eliminated its Monday and Friday print editions, while the Duluth News Tribune cut back to two print editions per week. Union rank-and-file agreed to unpaid furloughs at the Star Tribune (eight days) and the Pioneer Press (four weeks). Papers in the Gannett, Ogden and CNHI chains endured layoffs, buyouts and budget reductions.

In the Twin Cities, free community papers like The Villager, The Longfellow Nokomis Messenger and Midway Como Monitor began selling subscriptions or soliciting donations to make up for declining advertising. All were still publishing at year’s end. Their future? To be determined. Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, fears more closures or consolidations statewide in 2021.

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It’s no secret small-town and community newspapers fill an irreplaceable role, holding accountable those municipalities that outfits like the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and MPR can’t cover. Every community needs a watchdog — or several. And when those watchdogs go away, opportunities for malfeasance increase, according to this study.

So if you treasure your local or community newspaper, buy a subscription or donate today. If you don’t, that paper may not be there tomorrow. Trust me: You’ll miss it, especially when your property tax bill arrives. 

New to the market

So was there any good media news in 2020? Thankfully, yes. The Minnesota Reformer, a web-only entry helmed by former Strib political reporter J. Patrick Coolican, launched in January and established itself as a player in political and data-driven journalism. Part of the East Coast-based States Newsroom network, this month the Reformer produced an investigation into how poorly the Minneapolis Police Department holds bad cops accountable, based on public records the Reformer sued to obtain.

Also this month, Axios hired another former Stribber, Torey Van Oot, as part of its expansion into local markets. Minneapolis is among the first four, along with Denver, Tampa and Des Moines. 

Finally, keep your eye on two intriguing developments. In Eden Prairie, after the EP News shuttered, locals created the nonprofit EPLN (Eden Prairie Local News) to fill the information void. And in Grand Marais, CherryRoad Technologies of Morris Plains, N.J., bought the Cook County News-Herald. The tech company’s chief executive told the Strib it plans to invest in small newspapers in multiple states. That’s encouraging.

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Strib diversity initiative

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody, Black newsroom staffers at the Star Tribune demanded management take a hard look at the way it treats employees of color. (Disclaimer: My wife works as a sports reporter at the Star Tribune.)

Like most mainstream media entities — including MinnPost — the Strib has long been too white and has had trouble retaining Black talent. In the last two years alone, the paper lost assistant managing editor Maria Reeve and sports team leader Rana Cash to better jobs at the Houston Chronicle and the Louisville Courier-Journal, respectively. Cash now runs news operations at three Gannett papers in Georgia. 

Kyndell Harkness
Kyndell Harkness
The Strib responded by making night photo editor Kyndell Harkness its first assistant managing editor for diversity and community. It also hired ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, a former Stribber, as its first Black metro columnist, a twice-a-month freelance gig. That’s nowhere near enough change, and we’re curious to see how the Strib follows through in 2021. 

Have Zoom, won’t travel

The pandemic altered sports coverage dramatically. Pro and college teams closed locker rooms to the media for safety reasons and shifted interviews to Zoom video conference calls. Radio and television broadcasters who normally traveled with their teams suddenly found themselves calling road games off monitors in a studio. Newspaper and web beat writers traveled less and relied more on Zoom.

Sports editors Chris Carr (Strib) and Tad Reeve (Pioneer Press) let their beat writers choose whether to travel, with the Strib running editor’s notes to indicate road stories written from home. When Wisconsin beat Minnesota in Madison for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in December, neither Gopher beat writer Megan Ryan nor columnist Chip Scoggins made the trip, an unthinkable notion pre-pandemic. (Andy Greder covered the game in person for the PiPress.) 

The losers in all this: You, the readers. With fewer opportunities for enterprise, you read the same quotes and notes across too many platforms.

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Some teams accommodated individual requests better than others, with the Twins among the best; media relations chief Dustin Morse won a prestigious award from MLB for his work. And yet, when Josh Donaldson was ejected from a game in Chicago after hitting a home run, the club didn’t make him available for two days, fearing he’d pop off and draw a big fine or suspension. Turned out Donaldson was still hot about it when he finally talked.

Expect pandemic-related restrictions to continue well into 2021. After that? We’ll see. 

RIP, Sid Hartman and Tom Hanneman

Sid Hartman
Star Tribune
Sid Hartman
Hartman, the 100-year-old Strib sports columnist, and Hanneman, long the radio and television voice of the Timberwolves, left us in 2020. Hartman’s final column ran the day he died, Oct. 18, fitting for a workaholic who abhorred the thought of retirement. Every beleaguered coach in the Twin Cities lost their biggest backer when Hartman passed. The well-liked Hanneman, meanwhile, was a rarity in television, a broadcaster with no ego whose genuine positivity lifted everyone up around him.

Just before Christmas, we also lost author and former Utne Reader editor Jay Walljasper. 

Moving on

WCCO-TV political reporter Pat Kessler, KSTP-TV weatherman Dave Dahl and KARE-11 general manager John Remes announced their retirements in 2020. KARE also lost veteran newsman Pat Evans, who moved to California to care for his ailing mother, and popular weatherman Sven Sundgaard, who was fired in May in an apparent dispute over his social media postings. The website Bring Me The News hired Sundgaard three months later to cover weather, climate and conservation. 

Pat Kessler
Pat Kessler